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IT'S ART! Welding steals the show at Arts International festival

Posted by Lindsay S. Buchanan on Apr 12, 2015 6:42:00 PM


Florence-Darlington Technical College 6th Annual Metal Sculpture Competition


FLORENCE, S.C. - It’s 7 a.m. and ten teams of welders are digging through large piles of scrap metal, their eyes darting around as they search for the perfect pieces to complete their vision.

They know this is their chance to show the local community another side to their trade – the side that is craft and art and creativity.

As just one of many events set up in an entire festival for international culture and art, the Metal Sculpture Competition between local welding students and professional welders could easily be overlooked, or at least misunderstood.

DSC_0058Flags from around the world stand on display in front of the Francis Marion University Performing Arts Center in downtown Florence, S.C.

Yet surrounded by booths set up with handmade arts and crafts and performances by Chinese acrobats at Francis Marion University’s Arts International – these welders, with their rough hands and beat up boots, are ready to prove that art is not exclusive to dance or oil paintings on gallery walls.

The noise coming from their welding booths is deafening as smoke rises from their torches and generators run nonstop. Yet each bead from their guns is a carefully placed addition to a structure that can be something as industrious and important as a bridge spanning a gorge to something as whimsical as a statue of a flying pig.

DSC_0030Smoke rises over a line of welding booths at Arts International in downtown Florence, S.C.

“Welding itself is a science, but the techniques are an art,” says 18-year-old Holden Tolson, a welding student at Florence-Darlington Technical College, who is on his way to a degree in nuclear pipe welding. “Some people wouldn’t think this fits in, but then they see our sculptures and they see it fits in perfect.”

DSC_0021Florence-Darlington Technical College student Holden Tolson concentrates over his work as his team members steady a tree sculpture he designed.


This is the sixth year for Florence-Darlington Technical College’s Metal Sculpture Competition, widely referred to as the Welding Rodeo. The school started the competition after searching for a way to promote its program and raise money for scholarships. After learning about a successful welding rodeo in Washington State, at Bellingham Technical College, FDTC decided they could pull off something similar.

The theme this year is nature, and six student teams and four professional teams are competing against one another by creating a sculpture around the theme using scrap metal provided by local businesses. After the competition, the sculptures will be judged by professional artists and auctioned off to the public.

“It’s eight hours of solid welding,” said Jill Lewis, FDTC’s vice president of Institutional Advancement. “They have to be creative, organized, and timely to meet the constraints of the contest. They must manage their teamwork.”


Back in the FDTC booth, Tolson leads his team of fellow students as they work together to create his vision, drawn on a piece of torn out paper. It’s meant to be a tree of life on top with dead roots coming out from underneath to represent life and death.

“My instructor told us to come up with ideas, and I just started drawing this,” he says. “It’s what came to me. We’ve made the tree on top too tall now though so we’ll have to change it up some.”

DSC_0231Tolsen, left, gives direction to his team members as they work on their sculpture.


The last minute change in plans is not seen as a setback, as the team pulls together to add more detail to the tree – some working on the main form, others creating small metal leaves to add to the branches.

Some of the students have been welding for years, while many had never touched a welding gun in their lives when they started classes at FDTC.

Tolson is one of the lucky ones, exposed to welding at a young age, with an excellent welding program readily available in his area, he's on a fast track to filling a well-paid and highly needed job as he looks forward to a possible internship with a local company.

“I’m 18 now and I’ve been welding since I was about 10. My brother welded and other people in my family are welders,” he explains. “I tried it and I was pretty good at it and I liked it, so I just got into it. Where I work now I can go up 100 feet in the air and be welding all day long and then come down to the shop and make a metal flower for my boss – it’s different.”

DSC_0127FDTC team member Jacob Niceley attaches leaves to the tree sculpture.

Still, each of these students are likely on their way to a decent career in welding – helping to fill a widening gap of welders in the United States. The American Welding Society predicts a significant shortage of welders in the United States over the next five years – more than 200,000 by the year 2020.

Schools like FDTC are doing what they can to help fill the void with general and specialized welding and cutting programs that prepare new students along with continuing education students for an in-demand career right after graduation.

“Welding – there is such a shortage – for every two welders who retire, only one is taking their place,” said Ross Gandy, former director of FDTC’s Advanced Welding and Cutting Center. “There’s such a demand for welders, especially in the nuclear industry. Pipe welders, pipe fitters and valve fitters especially can make $100,000 a year easily working outages (at nuclear power plants), and that’s working just eight months a year.

“Welding is not going anywhere – especially not in the nuclear industry.”

FDTC’s welding program is impressive for a small community college in a small town, thanks in part to their proximity to ESAB’s Florence, S.C., headquarters, which established a partnership with the school in 1991 to form their Advanced Welding and Cutting Center. Around 60 students enter the welding program each semester.

The high demand for graduates of the school’s specialized programs, such as pipe welding, pipe fitting and valve technicians creates an increased need for funding and scholarships – which makes fundraising events like the welding sculpture competition so important.

FDTC’s president Ben Dillard agrees.

“Welding is basically the backbone of numerous industries that we often never think about. The next time you are in a car, on an airplane or riding by a manufacturing plant just think of the thousands of welds performed to make our lives more enjoyable,” Dillard said. “And you may not initially realize that in addition to a very high skill level there is also a high degree of art involved in the world of welding.”


A bird is starting to take shape in the FDTC booth – a spur of the moment addition from team member Dylan Schock who is helping his team add finishing touches to their tree.

SchockerFDTC team member Dylan Schock puts the finishing touches on a bird to add to the tree.

“I’ve got a lot of people now who want me to build them stuff – not just nice welds, but art stuff,” says Schock about people learning he’s a welder. “They want sturdy gates that are pretty. It’s not all in the factories. I don’t know why people don’t know – I mean do they think that metal just put itself together when they see a sculpture?”

Schock, who enjoys working with his hands, is one of many students who turned to welding as an alternative to sitting still in one class after another.

“I don’t do standard classroom schooling really well. I went to school for one semester and really liked welding. The first day I welded was my first day of class. I’m finishing up now so I can make money at it. It’s not just sticking a piece of rod to a metal and putting it together.”

Crowds have begun to gather around the various booths as they see the sculptures come to life with recognizable shapes. People are drawn away from other booths at the festival as they hear the sounds of welding, grinding and cutting and come to see what’s happening.

“I can’t believe you can do this with metal,” is overheard from passersby as they peek into the booths to steal a look – some already discussing which ones they’re likely to bid on at the auction.

DSC_0232A crowd gathers around as the curtain comes down in front of the FDTC booth.

The artistry that is welding is definitely on full display as the teams get down to the finishing touches of their sculptures. 

DSC_0066Members of one of the professional teams put finishing touches on their pond sculpture.

Forklifts lift the heavy sculptures and line them up for inspection by the judges, one a well-known local artist and sculptor. An intricate shark in a coral reef scene stares out at its many admirers next to a whimsical lily pad design and a streamlined dolphin. The teams gather around with their family and friends to hear the judging results – the coral reef design wins for the professionals and a functional, yet pretty chair wins for a group of students from Dillon, S.C.

DSC_0258Finished sculptures are lined up for judging at the 6th annual FDTC Metal Sculpture Competition. 

Tolson and his team look disappointed as they hear their tree has come in fourth place, yet a smile creeps on his face later during the lively bidding when the sculpture sells for $600 to a woman who can hardly contain her excitement over taking it home.

Team member Jacob Niceley sums up the day perfectly when he explains why he’s proud of his team's work, no matter what.

“It all came together really well. I’m very pleased with it. We all worked well and did a wonderful job,” Nicely says. “I really think that it’s (the competition’s) opening people’s eyes to different and new horizons when it comes to the art world. When you come to something like this in a big-little town like we have you wouldn’t normally find a sculpture competition. I think this is a great example of how much a community can grow.”

DSC_0239Tolson poses with his fellow FDTC team members with their completed tree sculpture.

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Topics: welding, ESAB, ESAB blog, education, jobs, metal, welding rodeo, metal sculpture, art

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